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The need to value, not vilify, migrant workers

Free Malaysia Today, Malaysia, 3 August 2020 - The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated many inequalities that were lurking beneath the surface in Malaysia, not least those facing the migrant worker population. Covid-19 affects citizens and foreigners alike, but migrant workers have had to navigate the crisis without the same safety nets and support that many Malaysians have relied upon. They have done so while living in fear of being arrested or detained in crowded detention centres in an atmosphere of increased racism and xenophobia. But the pandemic has also shown that this has to change, not just for the sake of the migrant workers themselves, but for our economy and society as a whole.

The recent vilification of migrant workers prevents us from considering their stories as fellow human beings and how they have come to be in Malaysia. Both documented and undocumented migrant workers make huge sacrifices when they leave their home countries, including Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh. Often they pay large sums of money, selling property or putting themselves in debt to pay employment agencies and travel to Malaysia. They have invested a lot of money, time and energy into coming here to earn an honest living and support their families back home. If things turn sour, returning home with nothing to show for their efforts, other than crippling debts, is not a simple option.

Given a choice, nobody sets out to be an undocumented migrant living in fear of the authorities. Many migrant workers enter the country legally and become undocumented through no fault of their own. Some employers fail to renew their work permits while other migrants are victims of scams, left stranded without work after paying agency fees for jobs that never existed or are not as promised. Others have lost their jobs or their permits have expired during the movement control orders (MCOs). Without the opportunity to seek other lawful employment or return home, some will have resorted to taking up any work they can in order to survive.

For many years there have been reports of a range of labour and human rights violations against migrant workers in Malaysia, ranging from the non-payment or unlawful deduction of wages, physical abuse, forced labour, withholding of passports, human trafficking and debt bondage. A large number of migrant workers are in low-wage jobs which are tied to particular employers, leaving them with few options when things go wrong.



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